Category Archives: writing advice

Progress Report: The Resolution Revolution

I haven’t followed up on one of my previous blog posts before, but I felt that one month on a little bit of a progress report seemed like a good idea. Shortly before writing that last post I was in a place where, for various reasons, things with me needed to change and action needed to be taken.

But I have never been one for too much change, so I started with two areas I could affect immediately – writing and fitness. I had already started with this when I discovered #writeandrun21 was going on (a big thank you to Christine Frazier @BetterNovelProj and her brother Matt @NoMeatAthlete) so tying the two activities together made a lot of sense.

That was the vow – to get healthier and write more. So far, so good.

The continuing support of the #1k1hr writing sprint circle I have found myself a part of at the tail end of last year only gave me the extra encouragement to keep at it. Even when I’m writing and they aren’t around (due to all being online at different hours, spread across multiple time zones) the idea of that group is still behind me, spurring me on.

Back in my “Writing to White Noise” post I said I found it nigh on impossible to write under the circumstances of being in a public place and surrounded by fellow writers working on their stories, but without those guys and gals actually being physically present and being sat in comfort in my own home, the pressure I felt of the writing circle was gone. I find myself able to write more freely and naturally than I ever could have if we were all sat around a table across from one another.

It has now been a little over three years since I came back to writing, after almost a decade of being away from it. I found that while my creativity was still there, albeit a little different to how I remembered, I wasn’t producing anywhere near the amount of writing that I used to be able to in my late teenage years and early twenties.

While I understand that everyone else in that excellent little writing sprint circle is working on full manuscripts to their novels, for me I have been using those hours to not only work on chapters of my own novel but also on short stories as well as writing up notes and journals. At this stage it doesn’t matter what the particular project is, only that I am getting the words out. Several hundred of them a day, flowing out of me for at least one hour. Not all of it is going to be gold, but it’s all worthwhile. I’m hoping that through the word sprints it will eventually become habit for me to write like this on a daily basis unaided. Second nature. The intention is for me to ultimately be writing more, and so far that has been the case.

By the way, the walking/fitness thing is also going very well and also ongoing.

Thanks for reading, and happy writing!

New Year – Write More! The alternative resolutions list.

Historically I’ve used the calendar milestone of my birthday to note and keep track of my accomplishments, and failures, from year to year. Me getting older (progressing in both age and wisdom?) seemed a more obvious reference point to me, rather than the last digits of the year changing on paperwork I have to fill out.

But still it can be a time for some to evaluate what has been done over the last twelve months, and take steps of how to improve upon that for the forthcoming year. This last year I feel I’ve written possibly the same amount as the year before, but I’ve definitely shared a lot more of my writing than ever before and has expressed myself to more people than I have previously.

WRITE MORE

I’ve written a couple of posts for this blog that have been fairly well received and through them have got in contact with some remarkable people, all of whom showed interest and asking questions of my writing and sharing with me their own creativity.

I will still procrastinate as much as I ever have. There will always be that one e-mail I am going to want to respond to before I start writing when the laptop goes on.

WRITE MORE

Housekeeping – and I don’t mean dusting the shelves or vacuuming the carpets! “I’ll write better if I had a tidier, sparser, desk or writing area”. What I have said before about my writing space was that I probably should have one but don’t.

From part of a blog post in 2012 :

I don’t have a writing space. No nooks, crannies or cubby holes. No ready room. No secret garden. No stark whites, or muted earth tones and certainly nothing airy and spacious overlooking sweeping vistas. I write in my head, and with all the useless trivia I have retained over the years there’s certainly no room for a desk in there.  Sometimes that’s all I need, but it mostly comes down to having pen and paper and me, and that’s it. If I were to sit in a room, at a desk and try and surround myself with inspiration – when I’m put against a clock, pressured even slightly to produce something nothing happens.

IMG_7844 (Small)

I still don’t have a desk. I have a little table that is barely wide enough for my laptop that slides up rather nicely to my comfiest armchair.

WRITE MORE

Fitness – another area that’s generally pondered at this time of year, when we realise how much food has been consumed in tandem with being fairly sedentary over a few days. Maybe becoming fitter, healthier and more energised will also focus the mind and inspiration and creativity will pour over you. While I have bought some new gym clothes already, I’m taking part in #writeandrun31 which is being organised by Christine Frazier @BetterNovelProj and her brother Matt @NoMeatAthlete. Walking is more my speed though so I won’t be running – it’s a lovely idea and everyone who takes part I will hold in high regard.  http://writeandrun31.strikingly.com/

WRITE MORE

 The setting of  specific targets and goals, with regards to my writing, will never seem to work out for me (NaNoWriMo? No thank you, not yet!) and I find the added self-imposed pressure to counter my creativity. So no X number of words per day or X number of hours per day. I simply vow to WRITE MORE – wherever and however I can, whenever I feel I can.

WRITE MORE

and Happy New Year to you all!

To what end? Does being a writer mean you have to have an endgame?

If I were a sculptor… but then again no, that’s not a good way to start off this post. Let me try this again for you.

Doing something you love but not getting paid for it generally makes you a “hobbyist”. If I set up an easel in my garage and painted, or I strapped a camera around my neck and traversed hilltops and valleys to take picturesque landscapes… or even if I took pride in a small corner of the garden and made a whimsical little area for fairies and goblins… Heck, if I made something with LEGO that wasn’t to the manufacturer’s design and displayed it on my mantle I would mostly likely be greeted with comments on what a wonderfully creative little hobby I had.

My occupation in retail is not something I want to define me to others, and writing is too much a part of who I am for me to really label it a hobby, but if you tell someone you’re a writer, invariably they’ll ask you; “are you published?” There has to be an endgame for writers in the eyes of non-writers it seems. I didn’t tell people I was a writer because to answer their go to question in the negative resulted in me having to go on the defensive, and to avoid feeling like a failure. We aren’t allowed to just be able to write for ourselves for the pure creativity in it. For the pleasure and the incredible sense of wellbeing we get from it alone.

I should at this point state that when I say I am not published, that is to say I have not attempted to get any of my creative writing published. In the late nineties I did contribute to a weekly e-mail newsletter reviewing episodes of US television shows. I also had an article on a now defunct US-based sports website in the early noughties on the subject of professional wrestling, and currently have reviews of CDs and DVDs printed in Trucking magazine (available monthly from all good newsagents).

“You play an instrument but you aren’t in a band? Do you have a record deal yet?” It just doesn’t get asked.

I can’t draw, paint, sing, dance, act, play an instrument – writing is my own personal creative outlet. I write because I love to write. Truly love it.

So, to what end? Can “for the sake of it” not be enough? That’s not to say that at some point down the road my aspirations will change, but that shouldn’t invalidate or belittle my desires now to just be able to express myself through writing for pleasure, to want to get better and better at it, as anyone practising anything would wish to do. To have a fun with it.

I’m only a hobbyist by definition. In my heart, I am a writer.

The (Vast) Difference Between a Critique and an Edit

Usually, when a writer has finished a story or taken a story as far as they can, they send them out to critique groups or beta readers for feedback. As the author, it’s difficult disconnecting from a story’s headspace, and that makes it tricky to judge if everything is working. This is where critique groups and betas are invaluable: the fresh eye, the new perspective, the telling reactions. These all help author see where a story might still need work.

But there’s a big difference between a critique and an edit, and sometimes authors get back one when they really need the other. I’m going to talk about why, break down each one, and suggest things writers should do when approaching someone for feedback.

Critique:

A critique is an evaluation. It’s a review where you look at the bigger picture and consider things like pacing, clarity, character motivation, character arcs, plot and plot holes, weak dialogue, unnecessary exposition, theme and motif. This is where you think about whether or not every chapter, every scene, every paragraph advances the plot. You ask if all the characters are pulling their weight. You ask what the writer is trying to get across. Think: bigger picture, overall story.

Edit:

An edit focuses more on grammar, style, and punctuation. It picks apart paragraphs and sentences and looks for inconsistencies, repetitions, misused words, typos and spelling errors, awkward sentence structure, etc. It can expand to include suggestions on characters, dialogue, pace and plot, but these are generally smaller observations, on a paragraph by paragraph (or line by line) level. Think: details, fine tuning.

When you send stories out for feedback, be clear about the following:

1) How ‘finished’ is your story. It’s no good getting line edits on a first draft–it wastes everyone’s time. Ideally, you don’t want line edits until you’ve fixed the plot and characters. Plot and characters come first, and they should be analysed in a critique. Often revision is required, which can lead to whole chunks of a story being rewritten. How awkward when you have to explain to a beta reader who just spent two hours line editing your work that you’ve had to rewrite the entire story from scratch.

2) Be clear about what type of feedback you need. Specify the elements of a critique if your reader doesn’t know the difference. Ask questions (put them at the end of the story so as not to influence the reader before they start), and get them to write down their reactions as they read. Did their attention wander at any point, and if so, when? Were the character motivations clear and believable? Did the ending satisfy and tie in, at least a little, with the start? Was anything confusing? If the reader has never critiqued before, these questions will help guide them through it.

Writers become better writers much quicker through writing, reading, and critiquing. Editing will help teach you when to use commas instead of semi-colons, but it won’t teach you how to develop an engaging character with clear, compelling motivations, or sharpen your use of metaphor or motif, or just tell a damn good story. Semi-colons generally don’t sell fiction. Good stories do.

(Not, I want to add, that there’s anything wrong with a semi-colon! I ♥︎ them.)

If you’re a fiction writer, start critiquing. Do it every week. If you can’t find a fellow author to crit, then pull an anthology off a shelf and practise with that.

Here are some other excellent resources on writing critiques:

How to Critique Fiction, by Victory Crayne.

Nuts and Bolts of Critiquing, by Tina Morgan, posted at Fiction Factor.

15 Questions for Your Beta Readers, by editor and author Jodie Renner, posted at Kill Zone.

On Countersinking: Showing and Then Telling

This is inspired by Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops. It’s worth checking out the full article because it highlights some of the common clichés and pitfalls that can clog up a story. The article was written with sci-fi in mind, although a lot of their points relate to all fiction genres.

The one I’m focusing on is countersinking. This one makes me grin because I used to do it a lot in my early writing. A few years ago, me and a friend set about workshopping our earliest pieces to see what we could learn, and to track our improvements. The workshops were a riot—seeing ourselves as young, bouncy authors, full of excitement and dreadful clichés, lacking finesse and attention to detail but having so much fun writing and developing our styles. It’s a bit like travelling back in time and spending an afternoon with the kid version of yourself, entertaining and not a little eye-opening. I’m way more conscious of countersinking nowadays and rarely find it slipping into my prose, but I do falter occasionally, and often stumble upon it when reading other people’s work.

“You have to get out of here,” he said, urging her to leave.

And here is what’s happening:

A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit.

Or as I like to call it, “showing and then telling”. It’s obvious from the dialogue that somebody is urging someone else to leave, so the explanation urging her to leave is redundant.

Newer authors tend to do this due to a lack of confidence, but even pro authors are prone to do it too. I’m quite sensitive to countersinking; it slows down a story, reads clunky, and makes the writing feel loose and flabby. When doing a round of edits that focus on dialogue, I’m always on the lookout for sneaky countersinks. And if I find any? I kill them.

It’s strange how writing peeves can bring up so many nostalgic feelings. 🙂 

Planning For A Writing Life

There are loads of reasons to be a regular writer. Writing regularly makes you a stronger writer. Writing regularly makes you a more focused writer. It helps with memory and recall, and with spelling, grammar and punctuation. It can be rewarding. It provides structure. It’s brain exercise, and that can only be a good thing.

Trouble is, it’s not always easy to get into the swing of regular writing. I’ve struggled with it in the past, and I still do. We all have down-times. Things happen in everyday life that are our of our control, and sometimes writing is simply impossible. Once you fall out of your stride, it’s damn hard getting back into it.

But there are things you can do to ease you into a writing life. And if you plan to have a writing career, you really can’t afford not to write regularly.

A lot of people write either to a word count or a set time per day.

Start small, aim for something reasonable like 250 words per day. Young adult author Holly Black breaks down how she wrote her bestselling YA novel (part three in a trilogy) Black Heart here. In her post, she shows her daily word count for the four months it took her to write the book. Most are quite modest—sometimes she writes 300-400 words a day, but she writes regularly and so she’s able to finish a first draft efficiently. A lot of people aim for more than 250-500 words per day. If you can manage 1000 words, in two months you’ll have a novel. I know, it sounds easy when put like that, but often it’s far from easy. It’s not impossible though.

There are a couple of extra things you can try if you’re finding it hard to write daily:

First, figure out your optimal time to write. Some people are morning brains, and some are evening brains. There will probably be a time of day when you’re more productive—the creativity flows much quicker and more fluidly. Experiment. See what feels comfortable. You might also find that there’s no real optimal time, and even snagging an hour or two here or there is difficult. But if you really want to be a regular writer, you’ll find time. You’ll steal it. You’ll catch it in a dark alley and beat it up until it works with you.

Second, you need to find your Cave. This can be literal or figurative. My Cave is really my MacBook—as long as I have it, I can generally sink into my stories and get lost. If there are noises around me that I can’t ignore, I’ll plug in my headphones and listen to instrumental music. Or just plug in the headphones and not listen to anything (those little earbuds are great for noise reduction). But if you need a physical Cave, try to find a space where you’re comfortable to write. It doesn’t have to be a silent, candlelit room in a secluded Buddhist monastery high in the mountains of Tibet or anything—a lot of people love writing in busy coffee shops, or with the TV blaring background noise behind them—but it does need to be somewhere you can get lost in your ideas and story. If there are distractions at home, try taking your writing elsewhere. Pop out for half an hour and write on a park bench, or at an internet cafe, a library, a bar, at a friend’s house, wherever. I’ve known so many people who sneak daily writing in at their non creative-writing day job (naughty! But awesome!).

And sometimes it’s just really hard to start your daily word crunch.

There’s a fantastic exercise in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron called ‘The Morning Pages’. This is where you write three hand-written pages, every morning just after you wake up, of literally anything that tumbles out of your brain. It doesn’t have to be fiction. It doesn’t have to make sense. It should be stream-of-consciousness. You can write about what annoyed you at work the day before, or your reaction to a stupid comment you read online last week. You can imagine the last thing you ate and describe all the flavours and textures you remember. Write a list of chores and how you’ll go about them. Write about how irritating it is to have to get up and write three pages every morning. You just write those three pages. They’re just for you, not for anyone else. It clears your mind of all the crap you carry around with you throughout the day. Julia Cameron says: ‘ The morning pages are the primary tool of creative recovery.’ It won’t work for everyone, but it might for some.

Personally, I think the most important factor that keeps me on track with writing regularly is having an idea or set of characters that I love to bits. I must love my idea and my characters so much that to spend a day apart from them causes me angst and jitters. If you don’t love your idea, you probably won’t love the time you need to dedicate to it to getting it finished.

This is very long-winded, but I know what it’s like to want to write so desperately and then talk myself out of it for some reason or another (self-doubt, time management, tiredness, Skyrim, etc.). When I’m in the groove, there’s nothing like it. Productivity and creative movement feels great.

And I think writers should be able to feel great every single day. 🙂

Developing Characters, Part II

This is a follow-up post to Developing Characters, Part I.

I’d like to go into more depth on character voice and how to develop it. I can only speak for the way I do it; some of these methods might not work for others.

Years ago, when I was trying to strengthen my character voices, I would watch/read/listen to stories that had solid, distinctive characters and take note of the rhythms and phrases those characters used—not only in their speech, but also in their internal monologues. There are subtle differences between “Please make me a cup of tea” and “So are you gonna make me some tea, or am I gonna have to do it myself?” — the latter is wordier, yes, but the voice is more distinctive. Voice (dialogue and thoughts) doesn’t need to be spectacular in early drafts, but how characters talk and think should be considered at some stage during editing.

Here’s a trick to see how distinctive characters are: take a scene or chapter where there’s interaction, and select only the dialogue. Paste the dialogue into a fresh document without any speech tags, names, or other identifying descriptions. Read through it, or have someone else read it, and check where the voices merge or sound too similar. Is there confusion as to who’s speaking? If yes, either try loosening up one of the voices or make it more formal. Give one of the characters a verbal tick (like the tendency to say ‘you know?’ at the end of some of their sentences), or a light accent (though use accent carefully) and then re-read it. Better? It should be.

Another way of tempting out voice is figuring out how your characters feel about what’s happening. This will inform their attitudes and moods, and consequently what they’re saying and how they say it. Have them react, let them feel, give them passion and the ability to speak up. Let them tell lies. We all do it. An angry character might speak faster in short, snappy sentences, and they might swear or exaggerate, whereas someone speaking calmly and formally might use longer, more complex sentences and have a precise thought process.

Listen to conversations on the street, in your workplace and at home. I’ve mined real people I know for turns of phrase and verbal ticks. But also remember to look for people who are more guarded, who speak neutrally and try to maintain status quo—often you can have fun with a conflicting internal dialogue and thought.

I mentioned in the previous post shoving characters out of their comfort zones, and this also goes for shoving them at other characters. Bring in the type of person they despise, or someone they’re intimidated by, or someone they’re attracted to, and see how it changes what they say and how they speak. Character/character interaction drives plot and gives scenes energy. If everybody gets along all the time, dialogue can become lifeless. Even if your characters are friends, have them disagree regularly, or give them a rivalry that you can mine for little tensions.

IMO, most importantly, you’ll only get to know your characters well by writing them. Outline and do questionnaires and mind-map them, too, but they have to act and react to really shine.

Developing Characters, Part I

A well-rounded character has both good and bad traits, much like we do. A character doesn’t have to be particularly likeable, either, but readers must be able to empathise with them, at least somewhat. I think this is what readers connect with (and how to keep them reading)—they see a little of themselves or someone they know in a character. Yep, even in the bad guys.

When I’m trying to find a character’s unique voice, I always use their surroundings to influence how they would speak and act. I try to consider the time period, the social background, even the genre I’m writing—all these things will (and should!) effect voice. Saying that, I also think we often worry too much about finding a voice before we’ve even started, when all we really need to do is write and uncover it along the way. (Of course, it’s always nice if a character comes along with a strong voice already. :))

And if they still refuse to cooperate, you can always throw them into random and difficult situations that take place outside your main story. Write some drabbles or flash pieces and toss your characters into a crisis, or bring someone in from their past and make them deal with it. As their actions and decisions take place, you should get to know them better and it can help figure out what makes them tick. (Interviews and character questionnaires are also good for character-building. You can find some examples here and there’s a handy tag on Tumblr here.)

Also, the naming process often does my head in and sucks up hours of time. But! Three great resources I’ve used in the past for finding names (and name origins and meanings) are Behind the Name, Baby Names, and The Surname Database. I nerd out when a character’s name has a hidden meaning.

Research is good, but ultimately I find the best way of developing my characters is to just write them—in their own stories, in side-stories, and you can even shove them into other people’s stories.

On inspiration

“Inspiration comes to us slowly and quietly… prime it with a little solitude and idleness.” – Brenda Ueland

The irony doesn’t escape me. I have attempted to write a little something on the topic of inspiration now quite a few times, and each time I find myself struggling to find the very thing I’m trying to blog about. My first attempt was on a plane, some thirty thousand or so feet up in the sky. I felt that six hours in a confined space, while my fellow passengers lost themselves in a variety of interactive entertainment, would be the perfect opportunity to at least get the bare bones of the subject on paper to be later fleshed out when I was back on more solid ground. These thoughts evaporated quickly, like the small beverage the stewardess had handed to me just prior to the opening of my notebook, and I found myself instead jotting down observations of that day so far. Why do I always go looking for inspiration? Inspiration is the one who slowly creeps up on me, jumping out and grabbing hold when I am alone, isolated and not expecting it.
So it’s caught me, and more often than not it’s caught me with my pants down both metaphorically and physically. An idea has sparked and it has to circulate and brew in my head to stay alive until I’ve been able to make note of it. The response to a question of “what if?” or my mind working through an annoyance or situation I’ve experienced.  Guilt even. If I’m luckily it’s playing out in my head like the scene from a movie, which just leaves me the task of getting those images translated into words and onto paper.
And it’s not that I couldn’t find it on the plane because I was in among other people, nor is it true to say that all my ideas have come during moments of isolation. Like almost every other aspect of pure creativity there is no one answer as everyone is different. Whether alone or in a crowd, busy in thoughtful or physical activity, there is no predicting exactly when inspiration will strike. Just be sure to have a way of recording it when it does.
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” – Pablo Picasso

Writing "Other Worlds" workshop

A few weeks ago, I went into a local high school and did a workshop with the Year 10 students about writing “Other Worlds”. I thought I’d share some of the workshop here on our blog, as it can be helpful to all ages and stages of writing.

The first exercise was coming up with examples of other worlds.

EXERCISE #1: Come up with examples of Other Worlds you could write about. (10 minutes)

  • Fantasy worlds, set on other planets.
  • Fantasy worlds, set on our planet but in a different time (eg. Dark Ages).
  • Space; planets in other solar systems.
  • Worlds that exist on a layer beneath our own. Earth-based, alternate realities. Think: underground fairies/vampires/werewolves/etc.
  • The worlds in our own minds.
  • Dreamscapes.
  • Micro-biology. Worlds that exist in nature. Beneath the ocean, etc.
  • Other countries, exploring cultures that are different to our own.
There were some superb ideas and suggestions from the students—a lot of fantasy worlds, a lot of fairies and/or mythical creatures—and also some silly ones (“One Direction World” I’d been half-expecting. There was an “Ed SheeranWorld” as well, which sounds kind of cool).
Once the students had chosen their favourite “Other World” I asked them to consider some of the rules those worlds would need to stop things getting unruly.

EXAMPLE: In the Harry Potter series, magic exists, but it is governed by the Ministry of Magic, which regulates who uses it, what type of magic they use, when and where they can use it, etc. If there were no magic laws, we would have a very big problem and things would quickly fall apart.

Consequences are massively important to how believable your worlds are. As above, if everyone could run around doing whatever they wanted, society would fall apart pretty fast. Everything you invent, every action your character takes, will have consequences. You don’t need to get hung up on this, but just be aware, even if only at the back of your mind, that actions lead to consequences and you can’t just ignore them. Consequences can also bring a great sense of tension to a story, so never be afraid to explore them or let them unfold and take the story in new directions.

EXAMPLE: Consider a world where people never grow old. What are the consequences to this type of society? What sorts of rules might you need to set in place to deal with them? (e.g. regulations of population/births, use of resources, harsher death sentences for crime, etc.)

Other things to consider:

  • Climate
  • Technology
  • Language
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Natural resources (fuel, etc.)
  • Social structure (class systems, governments)
I also introduced them to the idea of mind mapping to keep a story organised. I made a post about mind maps on the Storyslingers blog at the end of last year, which you can read here.
There’s a possibility I’ll do this workshop, adjusted for adults, at Storyslingers later this year. Keep an eye on our events page for more details.